Into the minds of masters

Tomina Mary Jose recreates artworks of masters such as Botticelli and Rousseau, crafting her distinct interpretations.
Paintings from artist Tomina Mary Jose.
Paintings from artist Tomina Mary Jose.Photo |Vincent Pulickal

KOCHI : The gallery at Vylopilly Samskrithi Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram had a masterly finish. On the wall near the entrance, there was Sandro Botticelli, the Italian Renaissance master, whose ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ spread a spiritual aura that permeated the entire hall.

Here was the painting that represented the period in art history where the flamboyant, flexible ancient met the rigid, ritualistic modern of the 14th century Florence and from where it all began under the good guidance of social leaders such as Lorenzo De Medici, who patronised artists and sculptors such as Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Donatello, Filippo Brunelleschi, et al.

The art of the era was a revolution that not only ushered in a renaissance for the entire European region but also was a vent for the pristine ladies of high class Italy who were showcased as models in these paintings. Botticelli’s Madonna, they say, was an elite lady by the name Simonetta Vespucci as is the Da Vinci’s Monalisa said to be Lisa del Giocondo, wife of a Florentine merchant.

Several such stories come alive in the reproductions of the paintings of the masters by Tomina Mary Jose, whose exhibition was under way at the Samskrithi Bhavan. Her ‘Madonna of Botticelli’ was part of her many works on Madonna – her favourite topic of painting.

“I am an ardent fan of the Madonna,” she says, explaining the reason behind her reproduction of Da Vinci’s ’The Virgin of the Rocks’ and Raphael’s ‘The Bridgewater Madonna’.

Artist Tomina Mary Jose.

Da Vinci’s Monalisa, too, finds an interpretation through her brush. “My reproductions are not exact replicas. I use my own understanding of the paintings,” she adds.

“My work on ‘The Lady in Gold’ by Gustav Klimt was, by far, the toughest one because there were several layers to the painting. I added my own touches, working on the finer details, using variations in the presentation deriving greatly from streams such as Tanjore paintings. For me, it is a study of the masters, their moods, their understanding of the subject they paint, as well as the culture they painted from. Once an artwork has been in the public sphere for 100 years, such studies and reinterpretations are allowed.”

Tomina delved into the world of art soon after her marriage, when she shifted to Mumbai with her husband. There she took up an off-campus training course offered by the JJ School of Arts.

“I used to sketch in school and college, but the actual introduction to the world of painting was in Mumbai. That’s where I got into deep study of masters and their paintings,” she recalls.

“I was particularly fascinated by Da Vinci’s works. The colours he used were subdued, milder, blending well with the tone of his themes. The way he communicates through his art – subtly, in an intricate manner – is what captures a keen observer.”

Tomina’s husband K D Joseph’s frequent transfers took her to several cities. In Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram, she particularly struck friendship with fellow artists who sparked in her the urge to paint the masters.

“In Thiruvananthapuram, we had an art community that met frequently at Kowdiar. It was led by artist B D Dethan,” she says.

“We used to get together, exchange friendship and niceties, even talk politics, and then delve into the world of paintings. Here, I got ample encouragement. Most of my works, especially on Madonna, were done here.”

In Chennai, too, her work received the push she needed, and also the “clarity that comes from constructive criticism”.

“My life in painting was chequered, with frequent breaks to attend to my family. I had the encouragement of my husband but the directions that came from fellow artists as well those who came to watch my work helped a lot. For example, in the ‘Umbrellas’, the 1880 oil-on-canvas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, I was told the girl seen in my reproduction did not resemble Renoir’s original. They said it had glimpses of my own daughter, who was then a toddler. That my work on the masters could be interpreted thus came as a result of keen observation by art enthusiasts.”

Tomina, who is now settled in Thiruvananthapuram, is currently working on a Raja Ravi Varma project. “It will take about a year and a half. I have finished work on the ‘Milkmaid’. I didn’t include it in my earlier exhibitions as I felt it would be to keep it for a Ravi Varma exclusive. Another one, on Nala Damayanti, has already been sold.”

It’s not just about masters; Tomina has her own body of work as well. One of her choicest ones is her work on Mother Teresa. “She is beyond religion. I feel the wrinkles on her face reflect the streets and alleyways of Calcutta,” she says.

Tomina, notably, had embarked on a project to capture on canvas the ‘Heroes of Kerala’, as she calls the fisherfolk involved in rescue efforts during the 2018 floods.

Some other remarkable works include painting of the Buddha smiling, chilli farmers of Guntur, and Gandhiji’s link to women empowerment. Incidentally, Tomina was asked to paint a wall on the theme of women empowerment during the recent sprucing up of Samskrithi Bhavan.

Tomina’s works on masters, however, remains her forte. “Because they reflect the beauty of the mind of their makers. When I reproduce their paintings, I paint on the beauty of those minds,” she says.

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